PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Heavy-duty trains with thousands of gallons of crude oil in tow will begin rolling through the scenic Columbia River Gorge this week for the first time since a fiery derailment in early June.
Union Pacific on Wednesday announced plans to resume operations at some point this week. The June 3 derailment of one of its trains caused a 42,000-gallon oil spill and subsequent fire. Nobody was hurt, but it forced evacuations and disruptions to water systems in Mosier, Oregon, a small town about 70 miles east of Portland.
The rail company’s announcement comes as local officials plead with the federal government to halt the use of railroads to transport crude oil, a practice they say can never be completely safe for communities in the trains’ path.
Union Pacific officials have concluded that faulty “lag bolts” — fasteners used to attach the rail to the rail tie on a curved section of track — caused the problem in Mosier. Federal authorities are also investigating.
The company defended its decision to restart operations in a statement, reiterating the federal obligations it’s under and highlighting the tiny fraction of its Oregon shipments — less than 1 percent — that come from oil trains.
“Railroads provide the infrastructure, flexible networks and efficiency needed to move crude oil from locations where oil is recovered to customer facilities,” said Wes Lujan, a public affairs vice president for Union Pacific. “The federal common carrier obligation requires railroads to transport crude oil and other hazardous materials. If a customer delivers a crude oil tank car in conformity with U.S. Department of Transportation requirements, we are obligated to transport the rail car to its destination.”
Leaders at the Oregon Department of Transportation, Multnomah County and several municipalities including Portland and Mosier have called on Congress and the White House for bans on oil being moved by rail, which is under the federal government’s authority.
Reacting to Union Pacific’s plans, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown reiterated her previous call for a federal moratorium on transporting oil on trains until the system is unquestionably safe.
“Federal agencies and policymakers in Washington, D.C., will continue to put people and ecosystems at risk as they postpone implementation of reasonable safety measures that protect us unless we demand accountability,” Brown said in a statement.
Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington state, where a different rail company operates along the Columbia River, has held similar discussions with federal leaders in recent weeks, although he’s stopped short of requesting a moratorium.
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